Researching the Passive Solar Solution

As demand grows for architecture that addresses issues of conservation and sustainability, RISD’s Interior Architecture Department is continuing to emphasize low energy use as an integral part of its program. “It’s not about simply tacking on green ornaments, but about smart design from square one,” explains Assistant Professor Markus Berger. “It’s part of the complete design philosophy.”

One example of this philosophy is the graduate seminar Passive Solar Design, in which students explore contemporary environmental concerns through a focus on energy-conscious architecture. In spring 2008 the seminar was co-taught by Berger, who holds a degree from (Technische Universitat Wien), Austria, and Kurt Teichert, a critic in Interior Architecture and a lecturer in Environmental Studies and the manager of Environmental Stewardship Initiatives at Brown University.

Although simple approaches such as effective daylighting and the creation of good thermal envelopes have been common in European architecture since the 1990s, green architecture is just now coming to the fore in the US. Several factors contribute to this development, including rising energy costs and a cultural shift away from conspicuous consumption. “Economic viability and greenness are converging,” says Teichert, “and American building codes are shifting to more stringent energy requirements and offering clearer guidance on good design.”

In the seminar, students studied significant solar structures built over the span of the last 2,400 years and visited several local sites, including Brown’s Urban Environmental Laboratory, which houses the Center for Environmental Studies. They then focused on designing passive solar solutions for a specific building, including a Habitat for Humanity house, several 19th-century mills and office buildings, the Providence Train Station, and a men’s dormitory at the Okamura Printing Company near Nara, Japan.

After analyzing site conditions (such as solar orientation and prevailing winds) along with materials and uses, students proposed such modifications as improvements in natural lighting and ventilation, the cultivation of moss on exterior walls to provide insulation and water retention, the installation of photovoltaic panels to convert the sun’s energy into electricity, and the reuse of gray water for drip irrigation systems.

Interior Architecture major Karen Schaub feels the class will directly influence her professional work. “This course has reinforced my belief that I need to carry these principles forward as an assumption and a necessity,” she says. “The conversation [with a client] starts with the understanding that design simply works better with sustainability in mind.”

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